Francis Asbury: Circuit Rider

The next morning as Frank stood on the steps of Thomas Smith’s house, where the southern preachers had gathered to eat breakfast, the door swung open.

“Come in, brother,” one of the southern preachers said. “We have something interesting to report.”

Frank frowned. He had no idea what could have put the preacher at the door in such a good mood when Frank had come to say a gloomy farewell. When he entered the parlor where the southern preachers sat eating breakfast, the men stood and offered him hearty handshakes. The whole scene confused Frank.

One of the southern preachers announced to Frank, “We came to a decision in the night. The decision to break away from fellowship with our northern brethren does not sit well with us, so we have agreed to a compromise.”

Frank felt his frown turn into a smile, but he dared not hope for too much.

The preacher went on, “We will stop giving communion and baptizing for one year, long enough to send a letter to John Wesley explaining our side of the story and asking him for permission to change the rules. We also ask that you ride the circuits here in the South so you can see for yourself the predicament we are in.”

As Frank stood in the parlor, tears welled up in his eyes. One by one the men embraced him. Frank felt like the father in the parable of the prodigal son when his son came home again. Waves of relief washed over him as he sat down to eat breakfast with the men. Frank could hardly believe how well things had ended. Half of the Methodists in North America were not going to go their own way after all.

Having agreed to ride all the circuits in the South, Frank had to make new plans. But this was not difficult for a man whose only belongings fit into his saddlebags. Later that day Frank left Manakintown, but instead of heading north to Delaware again, he pointed his horse south and headed out to ride the circuits.

Throughout the summer of 1780, Frank rode his horse or traveled by carriage through much of Virginia and North Carolina. The war for independence continued, and with the British now controlling Charleston and South Carolina, it was not unusual for Frank to run into brigades of American and British soldiers. It was also not unusual for soldiers from both sides to slip into meetings to hear Frank preach. As he rode, Frank had to be cautious. Horses were in short supply, and military men from both sides seized the horses of those they encountered. Thankfully, no one demanded Frank’s horse from him. One night, however, after he had ridden between two opposing detachments of soldiers, Frank took off his hat and noticed it had a bullet hole through it. He did not know which side had fired on him, and he didn’t really care. He was just glad that God had protected him from harm.

The South, particularly North Carolina, was different from anything Frank had seen before. Many people lived in rickety houses made of sticks and mud. There were few schools for the children to attend, and even fewer churches. Still, Frank found devout Methodists among them, and he preached wherever he found people who would listen. Sometimes he preached in tiny log cabins; other times in large tobacco storehouses where up to five hundred people would squeeze in to hear him.

As he visited the Methodist circuits in the South, Frank usually traveled twenty or more miles a day on rocky, overgrown roads, swimming his horse across rivers, leading the animal more often than riding because of the terrain, and fending off an endless number of ticks and chiggers (mites). When there was not enough space on the floor of a cabin for him to bed down at night, Frank would go out into the woods and sleep, using his saddle as a pillow.

The people he met along the way were mostly poor and illiterate, quite different from the folks in New York or Philadelphia. Frank marveled at how low human beings could stoop under such difficult circumstances, noting, “The people are poor and cruel to one another; some families are ready to starve for want of bread, while others have corn and rye distilled into poisonous whiskey; and a Baptist minister has been guilty of the same.”

As he rode and walked the southern circuits, Frank had plenty of time to think about another issue he was afraid could tear Methodism apart—slavery. In the South, Frank saw slaves working in the fields cutting corn and tobacco, picking cotton, or chopping wood. In the evenings, some slave owners would bring their slaves to hear Frank preach, while others forbade them to attend religious meetings. More than anything, the sight of young boys and girls and old men and women picking cotton in the stifling summer heat brought slavery into sharp focus for Frank. He had spoken out against the practice before without much success, but now his soul burned with indignation at the very notion that one person should own another. He was especially concerned that some Methodists did not even think it a sin to own slaves. Frank was convinced that if Methodist believers didn’t band together to speak out against slavery, God’s blessings would depart from them.

In his journal on June 26, 1780, while traveling through North Carolina, Frank wrote in his journal, “There are many things that are painful to me, but cannot yet be removed, especially slave-keeping and its attendant circumstances. The Lord will certainly hear the cries of the oppressed, naked, starving creatures. O, my God, think on this land. Let not disaster come upon America. Amen.”

Several southern Methodist preachers accompanied Frank on various legs of his journey around Virginia and North Carolina. One of them was Edward Bailey, who rode and preached with Frank from August to October. The two men were often ill with various fevers and sicknesses that Frank supposed resulted from spending so much time in low-lying, damp areas. At times both Frank and Edward appeared to be near death.

Eventually Frank was forced to leave Edward at the home of a sympathetic doctor near Lynchburg, Virginia. Nine days later Frank received word that his traveling companion had died. He wrote in his journal:

Here I received the melancholy tidings of the death of my companion and friend, Edward Bailey; it was very distressing to me; riding together so long had created a great sympathy between us. He died on Tuesday last, about five o’clock, in full confidence—he spoke to the last and bore a testimony to the goodness of God. He would sometimes get upon his knees in the bed, weak as he was, and pray. . . . It was a sorrowful quarterly meeting for me, few people, they lifeless, and my dear friend dead!

Harry Hosier, a twenty-five-year-old black man from Fayetteville, North Carolina, whose master had freed him from slavery, traveled with Frank. Although Harry could not read or write, Frank was amazed at what a dynamic preacher he was. In fact, Harry was soon attracting larger crowds than Frank. But Frank did not mind. He would often let Harry do the preaching while he prayed that God would touch the hearts of men and women through Harry’s words.

On September 3, 1780, Frank took time to think back, noting in his journal:

This day nine years past I sailed from Bristol, Old England. Ah, what troubles have I passed through! what sickness! what temptations! But I think, though I am grown more aged, I have a better constitution, and more gifts, and I think much more grace. I can bear disappointments and contradiction with greater ease. Trials are before me, very great ones, but God hath helped me hitherto. I can with greater confidence trust him! And indeed, what have any of us to trust in for the future, except the living God?

Two months later, in November, Frank caught a ferryboat across the Susquehanna River in Maryland and set out for Dover, Delaware, where the quarterly conference of the northern Methodists was to be held. As he looked back over his journey through the South, Frank noted, “Within this six months, I have traveled, according to my computation, two thousand six hundred and seventy-one miles.”

The remainder of 1780 passed quickly, and as the annual conference to be held in April 1781 approached, Frank felt a sense of dread. He had stern news to deliver to the conference. John Wesley had replied to the letter he had sent. In no uncertain terms the Methodist founder had stated that the Methodists in North America were to stick with the traditional Methodist ways of doing things. There were to be no allowances or exceptions made to the rules. Frank was concerned about how the southern Methodist preachers and Robert Strawbridge would react to John’s response. While he had been in the colonies, Thomas Rankin had managed to rein in Robert so that he did not administer the sacraments to Methodist followers on his Maryland circuits. But with Thomas now returned to England, Robert was again agitating over the issue. Frank hoped the Methodists wouldn’t end up dividing after all.

One thing was different at this conference than at the previous one. Back then Frank had been loved and trusted by the northern preachers but was relatively unknown to the southern preachers. But Frank’s six hard months of riding the Methodist circuits in the South had changed the equation. Many of the southern preachers had ridden with Frank on his journey and had come to appreciate him too. When the conference voted on whether or not to accept John Wesley’s restrictions, most of the southern Methodist preachers sided with Frank. Several preachers, including Robert Strawbridge, were not present at the conference, but Frank hoped they too would accept the decision and not resist his leadership in the matter. It was something Frank need not have been concerned about. Robert died unexpectedly a short time after the conference. His death swept away the last pocket of resistance to Frank’s leadership and closed the matter.

Following a preaching trip through western Virginia, Frank made his way to Philadelphia, arriving there on October 12, 1781. It was the first time he had visited the city in five years, and he found the place abuzz with political conversation about the future of the American colonies. While in Philadelphia, Frank learned of the showdown going on between the British and the Continental army, reinforced with French troops.

British forces under the command of British general Lord Cornwallis had occupied Yorktown, on the York River in Virginia, a fortified position that could be resupplied by sea. In response, George Washington had moved his army of American and French soldiers to Virginia to oppose the British move. In September the French navy defeated the British fleet off the Virginia coast, cutting off General Cornwallis’s army from resupply and reinforcement as well as from an escape route.

At the time Frank heard the news, Washington had his troops besieging the British defenses. On October 19, seven days after Frank arrived in Philadelphia, General Cornwallis surrendered his entire army of over eight thousand men to George Washington. Like many people, Frank hoped this humiliating British defeat would signal the end of the war. While British troops still occupied New York City, Charleston, and Savannah, reports from England indicated that the British Parliament had lost the will to keep fighting. Frank prayed with all his heart that the fighting would end and the colonies would be at peace once again.

Chapter 11
So Strangely Set Free

As it turned out, the rumors were true. The British Parliament had tired of the war. In February 1782, the British House of Commons voted to end the war with the American colonies. In April, the British began peace talks in Paris, with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin representing the former British colonies in America.

It wasn’t until May 10, 1782, while he was visiting Culpeper, Virginia, that Frank learned of the end of the fighting. He wrote in his journal, “Here I heard the good news that Britain had acknowledged the independence for which America has been contending—may it be so! The Lord does what to Him seemeth good.”

Eleven days later, Frank attended the Methodist conference being held at Lovely Lane Chapel in Baltimore. A motion was put forward that called for “Brother Asbury to act according to Mr. Wesley’s original appointment and preside over the American conferences and the whole work.” The motion was carried unanimously. Francis Asbury was now the leader of all Methodists in North America.